We all know that people of African descent were not treated well in Europe and the Americas during the 18th and 19th Centuries. But if we look back to an earlier time, the Renaissance age, Africa and its people were viewed as exotic, unique and therefore often fashionable. Kate Dolan explores the exhibit Revealin the African Presence in Renaissance EuropeThe European perception of Africans is the subject of a fascinating exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and I urge you to see it before it ends on January 21, 2013.

“Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” tells different, often conflicting stories of the treatment blacks received in Europe during the 15th and 16th Centuries. In art, as in life, the Africans appear as everything from king to traders to slaves.

At the time, Europeans viewed Africa with mixed emotions. The continent was so close and yet so different, and those differences both entertained and horrified European audiences. The ferocity of the animals, the scantily clad bodies and open attitudes toward sexuality, and the extremes of the landscape titillated and disturbed. Some early explorers and mapmakers who ventured to the land of elephants and giraffes seemed to think all manner of monstrous creatures might be found in the interior of the continent. The first widely published map of Africa from 1540 includes pictures of “monstrous races” with human bodies and animal heads.

On the other hand, very often in Renaissance art just as in life, people of African descent were treated the same as those of European descent. Black and white peasants work hand in hand at the same activities and shop together in the marketplace. By contrast, the Jews are marked out as different by the yellow circles worn on their sleeves.

One repeated theme is the depiction as African of one of the legendary three magi who pay homage to the Christ child. The dark exotic skin helps demonstrate the far reach of God’s messiah – he came for all mankind no matter how far away or how different.

One of the most interesting pieces I saw in the collection was a 1515 painting of St. Maurice, who was the commander of a Roman legion based in Thebes. When ordered to worship the Roman emperor, Maurice and his men refused (because they were Christian) and so they were executed. In this painting, he and his officers are depicted with dark skin (and clothing typical of the 16th Century German army). The painting comes from the areas of modern Switzerland and Germany where St. Maurice and his men fought. Italian painters, on the other hand, always depict St. Maurice as a light-skinned European.

Most slaves in Europe were caucasian until regular trade developed between Europe and Africa. For example, a painting of an Italian slave market in 1620 shows mostly white slaves offered for sale. However, most of these slaves would only face servitude for a certain number of years before being freed, except for galley slaves who could be chained to their post until death.

Even if they were not seen as slaves, however, dark skinned peoples were seen as “stained,’ possibly by sin. In some artwork, unrealistically coal black skin is contrasted with the “beauty” of equally unrealistic milk white skin.

On the other hand, some artists found the darker skins of Africans particularly attractive. But by the early 17th Century, the appeal of that exotic beauty started to decline and the focus of European fashion turned to the Orient and the Americas.

My favorite piece was an oil sketch created by Rubens. He painted the face of an African, probably a trader, whose name was not recorded. This was a practice piece for him to help figure out the light and coloring he would use on a portrait of a deceased son of a Tunisian king. He would base the portrait on a black and white sketch so did his practice piece to determine the light and coloring he would use in the final picture. Though the face is beautifully developed and personality leaps from the paper, the edges of face show ledger lines and figures because it was painted on scratch paper.

So a painting that was considered a throw-away practice piece by the artist is a valuable treasure to modern audiences. Attitudes change with time, as this exhibit illustrates in so many ways. See if while you can! For info visit www.walters.org. After January 21, the exhibit moves to Princeton University.